Make your lawn the best it can be

Jessica Walliser
| Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, 6:04 p.m.

Want to have the best lawn on the block come spring? Here are ideas for growing a healthy, chemical-free lawn that is gorgeous, safe, and easy-to-maintain.

Let's start by shifting our thinking from “feeding the lawn” to “feeding the soil.” Instead of dumping on chemical fertilizers that may result in a quick, temporary green, use organic-based fertilizers that slowly release their nutrients over time, resulting in month after month of green, instead of just weeks. Using fertilizers derived from natural ingredients, rather than chemicals, means you'll be feeding all the beneficial insect and microbial life into your soil. These microscopic critters break organic matter down into usable plant nutrients and, in turn, feed our plants as they were meant to be fed, slowly and evenly.

You can do this by adding an organic granular fertilizer once or twice a season or by topdressing your lawn every spring with a quarter-inch of finely screened compost spread via a pitchfork and a wheelbarrow or a drop spreader. Compost creates a nutrient-rich blanket that is available to plants for far longer than a chemical fertilizer. Another important reason to move away from chemical fertilizers: 75 percent of the nutrients in them run off into our watersheds before plants can use them, but 90 percent of the nutrients in natural, granular fertilizers stay in our soil and continue to feed our lawns for months.

The next step in growing a healthy lawn is to cut high. Leaving turf grass 3- to 4-inch-tall shades out weed seedlings and generates a good, deep root system. After all, the more surface area grass has for photosynthesis, the more energy it has to promote good root growth. Deep, healthy roots mean less irrigation and fertilization, too. You'll also want to be sure your mower is capable of recycling the clippings back into the soil via a mulching feature. Since these tiny clippings are both quick to decompose and chock full of nitrogen, with a mulching mower, you are fertilizing every time you mow.

If you want to cut down on mowing chores, you may want to consider replacing or over-seeding your existing lawn with a low- and slow-growing seed mix. Seed mixes like Pearl's Premium ( require mowing only three or four times a year. This particular brand is a collection of fescue varieties and newer cultivars of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye with slower growth rates. Other similar seed blends are produced by High Country Gardens ( and Wildflower Farm (

If weeds are presenting a challenge, know that many weed problems are the result of poor soil conditions. Get a soil test through your local extension service, and follow their recommendations to boost fertility and adjust the soil pH. Remedy poor soil conditions and promote healthy grass, and major weed outbreaks become a thing of the past. Weeds like ground ivy thrive in poorly drained, compacted soils with low fertility, so aerating and dethatching the lawn every three or four years also goes a long way toward staving off this, and other, pernicious weeds.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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